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I’m going to share with you something that cost me five thousand pounds.

It’s about what I want my stories (and other types of writing) to do. I want them to haunt you, or even stalk you. I want them to ambush you with laughter, or surprise, long after you’ve finished reading them. I want them to come back at you like bad pennies, dishonoured cheques, and badly digested meals, or the shock of unexpected sexual encounters.

Because that’s some of the ways that stories stick in my mind, and is why I like them a lot!

One of the ideas that I picked up whilst taking my M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton campus in Dumfries, was that you have to read to be able to write. I picked it up like it needed putting in a plastic bag and dumping in a bin. It wasn’t an idea I was looking for. It disturbed my equilibrium, threatened my equanimity.

Of course, reading won’t make you a good writer. The relationship is more complicated than that. Writing, in fact, is more likely to make you a good reader. It is likely to make you into a reader who reads like a writer, and reading like a writer might just help you to become a better writer than you have been.

A lot of the value in that five grand was in a simple idea, one that I should have had without needing to have it shoved into my head like a nine foot pike staff. It was the simple idea that when you’re reading, and something makes you reel – or any other of a number of imaginable metaphors – it’s worth stopping your reading, and going back and looking at exactly how that happened.

Because, sure as eggs are erfs, the only thing that can have made it happen is the words printed or written on the page (or heard from the lips of the person reading or telling you the story).  Because that’s all there is. And when you isolate those words, you can begin to get an idea of what it was about them that created the effect.

Partly that will be just exactly what those specific words signify in the lexicon of your brain: something that has been created for you alone, by the events of your life, and the way that the words you have encountered have interacted with them. But partly too, it will have been the way that those words have interacted with the words that have preceded them in whatever you are reading, and with the way that they have interacted with each other in the cluster that has sparked your reaction.

Language is the thorns that prick the skin of your subconscious. Reading like a writer is a matter of pulling them out, and taking a close look at where they came from, and why they hurt. And that just might help you when it comes to sticking them into someone else.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI haven’t revisited my home town, in the English Midlands, for more than a decade. When I used to, and particularly in the first few of the forty or so years I have lived elsewhere, locals would remark on how I’d picked up a northern accent.

Up north (oop north to some) I’m still told, though not quite so often these days, on the basis of my voice, that I’m not from round here. This helpful observation, repeated over the decades, has led to me thinking of myself as the Incomer I’ve been labelled, rather than as the ‘adopted northerner’ I’d romantically imagined myself to be in the beginning.

But my voice has undoubtedly changed, and not only in the vowel sounds, but in the order of words, and in the selection of words, varying away from, and, more recently, back towards my remembered Midland accent. It’s not all to do with being up north of course. Language, and the way we speak it changes over time, and over the voices we hear, which in the modern world are as often as not coming from long distances away from where we are actually hearing them.

Being cast as an incomer, and having what is oddly referred to as a white skin, in a predominantly white skinned area, means the identification is mostly down to voice. Yet the writer A.A.Gill has pointed to his own RP accent as masking his Scottishness, and in our so called multi-cultural society we often encounter people whose physiognomy might deceive us as to their origins.

But speech and language are learned, not inherited, and they are learned by listening. I remember a Scottish tour guide in Austria telling us how her Bavarian learned German amused the locals in the Tyrol. ‘Gruss Gott’-ing a Rhinelander, one imagines, might be like ‘ay up me ode’-ing a southerner. And the many varieties of Europeans I encountered – in addition to us – in the hotel trade in Cumbria sometimes spoke a mouth-watering Cumbrian dialect. How we speak reflects how we have heard, and how we have listened, and what we have engaged with. Those who maintain the ‘purity’ of their accents might be revealing more about their attitudes to those around them than they know. I wrote a poem about this several years ago, inspired by my conversations with the late Jimmy Robinson of Martindale. It later appeared in a Loweswater village newsletter! Here it is:

Doggin’ In

Y’ud think dog were delinquent

To hear Jimmy shout

Face red wi’ effort: Come On COME ON YE BUGGER

Y’ud think it were cowt

Doowin’ somat wrang

Up on t’fell

Nat bringin’ down t’yows

 

Y’ud nat think sick a frail auld chap

ud be sae strang in lung

as tae giv tung seck clout

t’owd dog knaws its nowt

tae fret about

Comes by an’s browt tae heel

Soon enow

 

Aye well, we tell each other

 

I slip into t’auld twang: his not mine.

I’m midlands: up cum fut

But folk as stand

And talk together

Start to sound alike

It’s them as doan’t

end up apt te misunderstand.

(poem by Mike Smith)

The  ‘up cum fut’ was what, at Charlotte Mason College in the nineteen seventies, I was told to lose, if I wanted to be a teacher, but the vowel (vaahl in Midlands) sound has never entirely gone away. Writing the poem required me to recapture my Burton accent, as well as to try to capture the accent with which I heard Jimmy speak. Neither proved easy, and reading it aloud is always like walking a verbal tightrope. Much later, when I came to write the story called ‘The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer’, I reached for that Burton voice once again. I can still detect it on strangers, across a crowded room, and maybe fall a little bit in love with it! The novella A Penny Spitfire (by Brindley Hallam Dennis) was set in the re-imagined town, but narrated in standard English. You can find it on Amazon in paperback & e-book forms.APennySpitfire-frontcover

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the years I’ve written, and written about, several short stories based around railways, both real and modelled. This thread, or should I call it track, of stories began with Train, and Last Chorus in Burton On Trent, both published in the 2006 collection Second Time Around. Both too, featured in the Vimeo-ed stories (search for BHDandMe on Vimeo and you’ll find ’em), along with the later The Right Words. There have been others, published and unpublished, from the micro-fiction The Scale of the Disaster to the novella A Penny Spitfire.

This latter, and larger work was in parts, a homage to my home town, expanding some of the ideas and images in the earlier Last Chorus. The railway, real or imagined, with its points (turnouts to the American) and sidings, its twists and turns, signals and so on, can be a metaphor for many aspects of life, for decision making, and equally for the inability to decide, the metaphor of being shunted into the sidings!

My home town was riddled with railways, gridded with them. They crossed the street and vanished into unseen, unknown places out of sight behind buildings or high brick walls. At night time the cries of shunters, and the dull, not quite resonant, clunk of the heavy coupling chains being lifted and dropped into place, echoed over the landscape.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not surprisingly perhaps, I was aware and interested. I have a friend, whose US practice model railway provided the images for the story Train, on Vimeo, and he and I have visited many model railway shows over the years. Eventually, of course, I thought I ought to have a go at this hobby too! It is, when all is said and done, another form of creative narrative.

Having done so, I soon learned that the one thing that drives a model railway, literally and metaphorically, is the locomotives. You can’t get enough of them! What struck me then, was the extent to which they are like the verbs that drive language.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Language is a funny thing…. well, other people’s language is; and our own if we can slip outside of it and look back, nome sayin?

My title for this week’s blog-post is taken from Tom Wolfe’s novel, Back to Blood. That’s the one! He uses the phrase to signify the ‘neg-speak’ of Antoine, one of the minor characters. Unnerstan? He uses that too.

We ask the question, not quite rhetorically, that implies we’re not quite confident we have been understood, or even listened to. You know what I’m sayin?

Doesn’t it make you, sometimes, want to answer, of course I know what you’re effin saying! Do you think I’m some kind of moron? But of course, la politesse holds us back, init?

I installed my initial language programme, as most of us do, in the first three to five years of life. Naom Chomsky reckoned there is a brain function that more or less switches off after this time – which is why we have such problems learning second languages. Since then I’ve been taking updates. It won’t have been quite the same initial package as my contemporaries got; not in the same street, not in the same town, definitely not in the next county; over the border. It won’t have been quite the same initial job-lot as the three year-olds a few months earlier, a couple of years later either? You know?

As to the updates, well, they’ll have varied from house to house, from day to day too. Consider the fact that I couldn’t even have explained it in these terms, if I had been my father. Install? Updates? There was a famous book in the nineteen fities, written by a nun who had left her order. Over The Wall, I think it was called. In interview she was asked about the changes in the world since she had gone inside. It wasn’t the technological changes, automobiles, radio and TV, jet ‘planes, that surprised her most, but the changes to the way people used language. Knowhaddamean?

We’re all speaking our own languages to some extent: translating the languages spoken to us; parents to children; locals to incomers; stranger to stranger.

The invention of the printing press cut across all this; seemed to set some sort of standard. What it didn’t do was to popularise, or democratise, the telling and receiving of stories. In fact, it may have done the exact opposite.

Stories and storytelling not only go back to the origins of language, they may have been one of the prime reasons for developing it – and my guess is that it developed in individuals, one language at a time. They knew what they were trying to say – others tried to work out just what that was.

Would the invention of writing have constrained this? Did the invention of printing tighten the noose further? Reading and writing are skills built upon an already existing language, aren’t they? And the casting of stories into print, which must be deciphered, rendered them unavailable to those who had not learned that skill.

Literary people will celebrate the obstacle, which, like the maxim gun, ‘we have got, and they have not’, because they have their hands on the font and galley. It is their stories that suddenly can be disseminated more widely than any voice can reach, in a single telling, and seemingly, for all time. And those who can’t read? Best learn, or be deemed unimportant, however good a speaker, or thinker, you might be. The digital revolution though, has put everybody’s finger on the keypad, threatening a breakdown of that hegemony.

Earlier in the week, David Crystal, author of a definitive study of English, and given the definitive article as ‘the authority’ on the language by Radio 4, threw his weight behind the efforts of a north-eastern head-teacher to learn her pupils (dilated or otherwise) some standard English! The further we cast our voices, he seemed to be saying, the more ‘standard’ we should make them. Yet, he also said, that there was a place for the local dialect, t’auld twang, as it’s called round here.

I’ve often thought that when people stop talking to each other their languages will drift apart (The Mackwater Seam, in Talking To Owls was based on this premise); the more they talk to each other, the more closely their languages will conform (the poem ‘Doggin’ In’, which I think reached the dizzy heights of publication in the Loweswater parish newsletter, picked up on the theme).

Closer too, as writers, as makers and tellers of story, there’s a place for our individual voices, our individual languages. They are what make

the stories our own, and that’s what makes them worth something to the people who read and hear them. Got me?APennySpitfire-frontcover

TalkingtoOwls

Calling Names:  What’s the dog’s name? You might be asked; and you might answer, I have no idea, but we call it Mutt.

Names are usually almost meaningless, but not quite. Sometimes they imply meanings by echoing other words. Sometimes they conflate meanings by the co-incidental marriage of their different elements. Sometimes they sound like actual words, but ones that we haven’t heard before. Sometimes they seem to be distorted versions of words that we know. Sometimes they are perfectly simple words from languages that we have forgotten, or not yet encountered.

Names are hygrospic of meaning. They draw it to themselves. Even randomly chosen names, plucked blindfolded from a telephone directory or voting register, seem to take on the the qualities of the characters to whom they are attached, or vice-versa. I’m writing about writing of course, and about the fictional characters we create, and how we identify them; but it all seems to be true of real life too!

A wartime friend of my father’s was known to his comrades as Blackie, to his first wife as Vin, and to his second as Mel. His passport would have recorded him as a Melvin. He was the inspiration for Derek Fitton, the protagonist in my novel, A Penny Spitfire. Derek is known variously, as Dec, and Dirk. These changes mark out the trajectories of real, and of fictional lives, as BHD and Me well know.

I was adopted into a Strickland family, on my mother’s side. They could trace their roots from the midlands, where I was born and grew up, back to the north of England, in what is now Cumbria. Stricklands were, and I believe still are, rare in the midlands, but in Cumbria they were a landed family ‘of Sizergh’. A Hornihand-Strickland was one of the seven men of Moidart, who welcomed Charles Stuart in his ill-fated 1745 to seize the crown of the Union. Strickland is a corruption of Stirkelond, a patronym of Dutch origin, brought into Scotland in, I believe, the fifteen hundreds, where it left the word ‘stirk’. Herd (and herded) in the border country, it was not a word in currency in the midlands where I grew up. Stirk isn’t in my edition of the OED, but went on to be steer, I shouldn’t wonder, when the Scots took cattle ranching across to the USA. Dogies and Spreidhs, and other such Scottish cattle culture words can be found in Rob Gibson’s Plaids and Bandanas, one of a whole genre of books about the Highlanders, in which some interesting origins of English words (also not in my OED) can be found.

Another name from my childhood was Hole, a surname deed-poll-changed by its owner to De Laney, which implies a story all on its own. If names work by suggestion, subtley influencing the reader’s reaction to characters, and to stories, they must also operate on the subconscious of the writer. They evoke associations we are not conscioulsy aware of. I recently wrote a story with a protagonist called Wynwright. I was well aware that the name was a slightly skewed version of the more common ‘Wainright’, and that it held elements that sounded like ‘win’ and ‘right’, but I had entirely overlooked the famous writer of mountain guides. Yet, the story begins with my character putting on his walking boots! I often recall that opening line of Moby Dick: Call me Ishmael, but I can’t remember any other mention of the name throughout that long novel. Stories are often named after their heroes, or villains, and have been since antiquity, for the Greeks gave us the word for the practice: eponymous.

Surprisingly perhaps, the absence of names can be as potent as their presence. Without names we have to find some other way of identifying our characters: labels, in effect. My Wynwright interacts with a character described as ‘the man’, or ‘the stranger’. In another story I have ‘the peanut headed man’. In this story the four central characters exchange names – though the reader does not hear them all, and the protagonist, who is named, resents the cultural imperialism of being subjected to the practice. In Lord of the Rings, the rather formal Peregrine (from peregrination, a circular journey, there and back again) and Meriadoc, are reduced to Pippin (a type of apple), and Merry (a state of mind valued more for its innocence that its intelligence). In a section I couldn’t track down to cite, I seem to recall, perhaps Gandalf, saying how he would hate to see the hobbitry subject to tyranny – but the adjectives he usesto describe that hobbitry are astonishingly patronising.

I remember a Rhodesian who had fled his homeland, losing almost all his possessions, in the late nineteen seventies. Telling me of his ‘bleks’, he asserted that they were ‘like children’. So they may have been, but that ought not to have been so, and if they were, must surely have been the consequence of the regimes under which they were living, and had lived. In the movies too, labels tell us as much about the labeller as about the labellee: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly springs to mind. Names are a seque away from masks and cloaks, uniforms and badges, whether or not you are a caped crusader. Black hats, and white hats, verbal or visual, explicit or implicit, give off the atmosphere of character, and of story in just the same way as the events that have taken place in a house are said to give off theirs. They manipulate the way we enter, and the carefree or cautious way we move through it.